In the Chinese countryside, where, the saying goes, heaven is high, and the emperor is far away, the phrase "family planning" has taken on a sinister connotation.
Local officials periodically enforce the central government's one-child policy with bloodthirsty zeal. They do not hesitate to invade a home, drag off a woman and tie her down to sterilize her, insert an IUD or inject her fetus with a toxic solution. Then the family must pay the bill with money that may well stay in the enforcers' pockets.
When the peasants cannot pay, these thugs confiscate their pigs and chickens, rice and seeds, the possessions needed to sustain their lives, then bulldoze their houses.
Or so Ma Jian tells us in his powerful new novel, "The Dark Road." Ma, whose works have been banned in China, has said he has heard stories like these firsthand when traveling, in various guises, among families on the run in Hubei and Guangxi provinces.
His fictional account focuses on one such family. Kongzi, a schoolteacher, is proud to be a 76th-generation descendant of Confucius. He feels it's his sacred duty to continue the male line. His daughter, Nannan, is not yet 3, and his wife, Meili, is pregnant with a second child and beginning to show when the population control squad zeros in on their village. He decides that the family must outrun the law until his heir is born.
On their journey, Meili learns of a place in Guangdong province called Heaven Township, where no one ever counts the children; there is ample work salvaging valuable materials from the foreign televisions and computers dumped nearby; and birth control is as effortless as breathing the dioxin-tainted, spermicidal air. "What a wonderful place it sounds!" she says.
Accompanying the corporeal characters is a spirit assigned to inhabit the unborn child until it has "achieved a successful birth" (and to provide some narration). As a literary device, this can be cumbersome, but it gives Ma enough metaphorical license to ask: Can reality be so harsh that a fetus might not want to leave the womb at all? Might a mother with fierce instincts but little information think it best to keep it safe inside her?
Ma left China years ago and lives in London, but he is more than an outsider looking back at a former life. His storytelling is leaner and more controlled than in "Beijing Coma," a landmark 2008 novel about the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath, and the allegory he employs here adds a dimension of supernatural possibility.
In "The Dark Road," as in "Beijing Coma," Ma is adept at jolting our senses, transporting us, with a few words about a pain, a taste or an odor, to those parts of China, and millions of people, who exist on the far fringes of the economic miracle.